By Bryan Walsh
I have been interviewing Princeton hopefuls for years. Here’s why I’m quitting.
One of the mixed benefits of being an alumnus of Princeton University — besides the closet full of orange-and-black clothing that’s only color-appropriate around Halloween — is that I have been able to play a minor role in the grand American reckoning known as the college admissions process.
Princeton, like many other universities, taps alumni volunteers to interview applicants who live in their region — Brooklyn, in my case. We ask applicants questions about their academic work, their extracurriculars, their background, anything they want Princeton admissions officers to know. The applicants ask us questions too — about life on campus, about academic competition, about whether we’d do it all over again. I answer them as best I can while reminding them that it has been so long since I was a college student — 17 years — that AOL Instant Messenger was the cutting-edge way to communicate. Later, I write up my impressions of the applicant, including a note of how highly I’d recommend them as a future member of the Princeton community. And then I send it off to be threshed in the great admissions machine at Princeton’s Morrison Hall.
Of the couple dozen students I’ve interviewed over the past few years — most of whom seemed far more qualified than I was as a high school senior — only one has been admitted. That’s hardly unusual. In the spring of 1997, when I was admitted to Princeton, the university accepted 12.6 percent of applicants. Last year, just 5.5 percent made the cut. That’s in line with other elite schools. Harvard College last year accepted just 4.6 percent of applicants and Stanford University a minuscule 4.3 percent. Even as college enrollments nationwide have fallen for five straight years — in part because there are fewer college-age students now that millennials have aged out — it has become tougher than ever to gain a spot at schools like Princeton and Harvard. And that puts a bright spotlight on the question of who gets in — and who doesn’t.
What if I told you there was a way to increase your chances of getting into Harvard by five times?
Recently, that spotlight has been pointed at the Federal District Court in Boston, where Harvard is fighting a lawsuit brought by Students for Fair Admission (SFFA), an organization representing an anonymous group of Asian-American plaintiffs who were rejected from the college. SFFA claims that Harvard unfairly discriminates against Asians, putting an artificial cap on their numbers. Harvard argues that its “holistic” admissions process — which it says takes into account nonacademic factors like personality and leadership, and which is broadly similar to the policies of other elite universities — is needed to produce a diverse student body and that those policies don’t discriminate against Asian-Americans.
The politics of the case are complicated.
The politics of the case are complicated. The plaintiffs may be Asian-American, but the motivating force of the trial is a white lawyer whose ultimate aim is to end any consideration of race in college admissions. Whatever the results in Boston — a ruling is expected next year — most observers predict the case will eventually find its way to the Supreme Court. There, Justice Anthony Kennedy — who cast the deciding vote in a case two years ago that upheld the use of racial diversity in college admissions — has been replaced by the more conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Harvard may be the focus of the case, but the ultimate outcome will reverberate across the country and could even end affirmative action in colleges.
I believe it would be a grave mistake for the Supreme Court to strike down the consideration of race in college admissions; it’s a policy that seeks to right historical wrongs and introduce needed diversity to U.S. colleges. But the Harvard lawsuit has laid bare the uncomfortable realities of how our elite universities choose their student bodies. If the Supreme Court acts — and even if it doesn’t — we will need to rethink a process that is undermined by unfairness.
Harvard and the other Ivy League universities that have backed it argue that it’s impossible to make their selections based solely on more objective criteria like grades and test scores. More than 8,000 domestic applicants to Harvard last year had a perfect grade-point average, more than 3,400 had perfect SAT math scores, and more than 2,700 had perfect SAT verbal scores. All of those figures are higher than the total number of applicants granted admission: 1,962. Even if such rankings were perfectly fair — and there is compelling evidence that they are not — they would not be sufficient to dictate the final selections.
Picking a student body in a way that is seen as just without sacrificing diversity won’t be easy, not when there are far more qualified applicants than there are available spots. It may be impossible. But there is at least one way to make the system more fair for everyone.
Imagine you’re an eager applicant to an Ivy League college.
Imagine you’re an eager applicant to an Ivy League college. What would you say if I told you there was a simple way to improve your SAT scores by 160 points? What if I told you there was a way to increase your chances of getting into Harvard by five times? You’d be interested. There’s just one catch — you can’t do anything to earn these advantages. You have to be born with them.
A legacy is a college admission term for an applicant who is a child of alumni. Did Mom go to Princeton? You’re a legacy there. Did Dad and Granddad go to Stanford? Congratulations — you’re a double legacy. As such, you’ll be given a leg up when your application is judged. And at some institutions, that help is substantial.
At Harvard, 33.6 percent of legacy applicants gained admission between 2010 and 2015, compared to 5.9 percent of those with no parental ties to the college. At Princeton, legacies over the past five years were four times more likely to be admitted than applicants in general. Research from Princeton’s own Thomas Espenshade found that legacy status provided a boost to a prospective student’s application equivalent to a 160-point increase in SAT scores.
Harvard’s “Dean’s Interest List” is a collection of applicants related to prominent people — most of them white and wealthy — who are admitted at significantly higher rates.
Some admissions officers at top schools claim that children of alumni are simply more qualified. “If you look at the credentials of Harvard alumni and alumnae sons and daughters, they are better candidates on average,” William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard, said in a 2011 interview.
Even if that is true, it doesn’t explain why applications from legacies, many of whom grew up with educational and economic advantages, should receive an additional boost that students from the general pool don’t. In the case of what looks like a tie between two similar applicants, the legacy often gets the nod — a “tip,” as Harvard puts it. At Princeton, alumni parents of applicants receive a letter from the admissions office recognizing that their son or daughter is in the pool and how “we’re very happy they have applied,” as Janet Rapelye, dean of admissions at Princeton, said in a recent interview.
Every school is careful to say that legacy status is just one small data point among many — including areas like extracurricular achievement, athletic ability, and leadership — that admissions officers use to create their perfectly mixed freshman classes. It’s not hard to see why we want great leaders, artists, and even athletes on campus, in addition to academically strong students. But why should admissions officers offer a hand to the children of alumni?
One major reason: money. You might assume that top universities are in the business of education, but they increasingly seem to be in the business of business. Princeton’s endowment — the financial assets that have been donated to the university — is worth $25.9 billion. Yale’s endowment stands at $29.4 billion. Harvard’s endowment — and you can bet this comes up at the Harvard-Yale game — is tops in the United States at $39.2 billion. And that money doesn’t simply sit in a vault. Professional managers are paid millions of dollars a year — far more than anyone who actually teaches at these schools — to ensure that the endowments grow. Which they do. Princeton led the way last year among Ivy League schools with 14.2 percent returns. Go Tigers.
You don’t build up that endowment without donations from your grateful alumni.
You don’t build up that endowment without donations from your grateful alumni. Lots and lots of donations. To be a graduate of a university like Princeton and Harvard is to be inundated with requests for money from the moment you walk out with your diploma. I get letters from the charmingly relentless folks who run Princeton’s annual giving campaigns. I get emails from members of my own Class of 2001. I get phone calls from current students doing work-study duty trolling for donations from alumni.
The money collected from all those efforts adds up. Last year, more than 55 percent of Princeton undergraduate alumni gave a total of $55.4 million to their school — all of it tax deductible, because Princeton, like most other American colleges, is a nonprofit organization. It’s like a charity — albeit a charity with an endowment larger than the state budget of Georgia, an endowment that generated more than $2 billion in income last year alone. And none of it taxed, which means the vast majority of Americans who have no connection to these schools are effectively subsidizing those donations.
These donations do play a role in admissions. The Harvard trial confirmed the existence of the “Dean’s Interest List,” a collection of applicants related to prominent people — most of them white and wealthy — put forward by the college’s fundraising arm. Applicants on the list are admitted to Harvard at significantly higher rates than unconnected students, and the plaintiffs argued that multimillion-dollar donations from family members tipped the scales. In a 2013 email with the subject line “My Hero,” a former Harvard dean thanked Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions, for his help in admitting a group of students connected to large donations. “Once again you have done wonders,” the dean wrote in the email, adding that one happy relative of an applicant, whose name was redacted, “has already committed to a building.”
The details revealed in the lawsuit were new, but the notion that a big donation can get a mediocre applicant into an elite school isn’t. In his 2006 book, The Price of Admission, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Daniel Golden told the story of a New Jersey real estate developer who pledged a $2.5 million gift to Harvard in 1998, not long before his son would be applying to the college. That kid wasn’t a strong applicant — a former official at his prep school told Golden that “there was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard.” But he did — and his name might be familiar: Jared Kushner.
Harvard has argued that even applicants connected to rich donors have to be qualified to be admitted and that those donations go to fund scholarships and other vital programs. For its part, Princeton points out that the money generated by the endowment and fed by alumni giving pays for more than half of the school’s operating expenses—on the high end of the range reported by other elite colleges. Even though undergraduate tuition at Princeton hit a record $51,870 per year for 2019–2020, only about 40 percent of Princeton students now pay full freight. Families with annual incomes as high as $160,000 — solidly upper-middle class — on average managed to forego paying tuition altogether.
Deeper reserves of financial aid have helped the student body become more diverse. In the 2017–2018 school year, 28 percent of Princeton’s freshman class were part of the first generation of their family to go to college or came from low-income families. In 2001, the year I graduated, 66 percent of Princeton undergrads were white, according to numbers reported to the Department of Education. By last year, that figure had fallen to 40 percent. For a university long considered snobby even among the Ivies — and which only began admitting women in 1969 — that’s a welcome change.
Elite universities like Princeton or Harvard are “serving two masters,” in the words of Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan. “One is the god of rich things, who demands a reactionary embrace of wealth and privilege,” while the other wants to transform these schools into “an egalitarian gathering of young people of all backgrounds.” It’s obvious which master legacy preferences serves. Meanwhile, for all the progress made in improving diversity and bringing in more low-income students, at many elite schools — including Princeton and Yale — more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale than the entire bottom 60 percent, according to a 2017 study.
At a moment when the competition for the few spots at America’s top colleges is so cutthroat, the notion that applicants born with the privilege of an Ivy League parent — who 10 years after graduation makes more than twice the median salary of graduates of all other colleges — should receive an additional boost is plainly unfair. The late Senator Ted Kennedy — a Harvard Class of 1954 graduate who it’s safe to say knew something about privilege — put it well in a 2002 speech: “The legacy preference rewards students who had the most advantages to begin with. It’s a birthright out of 18th-century British aristocracy, not 21st-century American democracy.” And that’s not even fair to the British aristocracy — neither Oxford nor Cambridge give preference to legacies, and for that matter, neither does MIT, the California Institute of Technology, or Berkeley.
You might ask why this even matters. Far fewer than 1 percent of undergraduate students at American colleges and universities attend the Ivy League or similarly selective schools. But who gets into these institutions makes a difference for the United States, because their graduates are so overrepresented in the country’s ruling class. Every Supreme Court justice save one attended an Ivy League school or Stanford for their undergraduate education. Every U.S. president since George H.W. Bush has been educated at some point at an Ivy League school — including Yale double legacy George W. Bush. More than 40 Harvard alumni — either undergrad or graduate — won seats in Congress in 2016. Michelle Obama is a Princeton graduate, as is Ted Cruz.
This is not because the graduates of these schools are so much more brilliant and driven than their brilliant and driven counterparts at other colleges. The secret of elite college admissions — the secret that became obvious to me during my time as an alumni interviewer — is that far more students deserve to attend these colleges than are ever admitted, and there is virtually no discernible difference between those who make it and the many more who just miss out. As Princeton’s Janet Rapelye said in passing in 2017, “We could have admitted five or six classes to Princeton from the [applicant] pool.”
What carries the graduates of these colleges to dominance in American life is less their own qualities than the very fact that they went to these schools, with all the attendant advantages, both during their four years on campus and in the decades that follow. When the admissions deans of Harvard or Princeton select the Class of 2023 from the pile of applications being finished this month, they’re not just picking their ideal student body. They’re shaping America’s future elite. And they know it.
Last year, student groups at 13 elite colleges representing first-generation and low-income students began mobilizing against legacy preferences.
My academic experience at Princeton — where my parents did not go to school — was excellent. Like many future journalists who attended the school, I was lucky enough to be taught creative nonfiction by the longtime New Yorker writer John McPhee — Princeton Class of 1953 himself. But the lasting value wasn’t the education — it was membership in the club. It was a signifier to the rest of the world that I had been recognized as one of the elect, even though I know now that little to nothing separated me from those who had been rejected. Admission also meant the rest of the club would look out for me. Which they have.
Beyond the desire for alumni donations, that’s why legacy preferences exist — to reinforce the club, to perpetuate the elite, to more closely bind students and graduates to the institution. In a response to the SFFA lawsuit, Harvard noted that consideration of legacy status “cements strong bonds between the College and its alumni and encourages alumni to remain engaged with the University for the rest of their lives.” Martha Pollack, president of Cornell University, said in an interview earlier this year that legacy admissions help “create a Cornell family that goes on for generations.”
At Princeton, the importance of those ties was drilled into us from the moment we arrived on campus. “Our sons will give while we shall live” as Princeton’s 159-year-old alma mater, sung at nearly every major school event, used to go. (“Sons” was changed to “hearts” in 1987 to reflect the fact that women now attend as well.) Give in the monetary sense, sure, but even more so, give your allegiance. My wife and I have a 17-month-old son, and you can bet that I’ve dressed him in a Princeton onesie, even though I believe that the good fortune I experienced in 1997 should have zero bearing on whether he would ever be admitted.
I’m far from the only one who thinks this. More than half of Americans surveyed in a 2016 Gallup poll said that colleges should not consider whether an applicant’s parents are alumni. Last year, student groups at 13 elite colleges representing first-generation and low-income students began mobilizing against legacy preferences; in March, students at Brown University voted to establish a committee to examine the practice. Although first-generation students obviously did not benefit from legacy preferences during their admissions process, their children could one day, just as my child could. Yet these students are standing up and calling for a fairer system.
Fairness is what the Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiffs in the Harvard case, say they are fighting for. And they make a valid point: High-scoring Asian-Americans are very likely disadvantaged in the admissions process employed by Harvard and other elite schools. But those same schools are right to take diversity into account when selecting their student bodies, in part because the country benefits from a more diverse elite. So how, then, can we find fairness?
One option would be to simply admit more students. In 1965, Harvard admitted 1,340 freshman students out of an applicant pool of roughly 6,700. In the years since, the size of the freshman class has increased by only 46 percent, even as the number of applicants has ballooned by 537 percent, while the endowment has grown even more. If a Harvard education is so valuable — and if indeed there are far more qualified applicants of all backgrounds than there is room in Harvard Yard, as seems clear — why not just make more space? That would require hiring more teachers and building more facilities, but surely Harvard, with its $39.2 billion endowment, could find the money, as could Princeton and Stanford and other highly selective schools.
Turn the admissions process into a semi-lottery.
Or we could go even further and take up the radical suggestion made by Princeton sociologist Dalton Conley: Turn the admissions process into a semi-lottery. Colleges could set minimum standards around factors like SAT scores and extracurriculars. If schools wanted to meet specific diversity goals or even ensure that they had enough linebackers and point guards to fill out varsity teams, they could do so at this stage. Applicants who made the cut would then be put into a lottery, and spots would be handed out by drawing.
The great benefit of a lottery system is that it would surface the randomness that is buried in the college admissions process. The American meritocracy is already skewed by the lottery of birth. So why not just be honest about the lottery of college admissions? If nothing else, such a system might comfort those who don’t get in, while reminding those who do that they owe their success not just to ability or hard work or their background, but simple fortune. Just like real life.
And that, of course, is why these reforms will likely never be implemented. For one thing, the college consulting industry, already worth hundreds of millions of dollars, is growing exponentially and would surely resist change. But the real problem is that these reforms threaten a core value proposition of these schools: their prestige. Top colleges have a vested interest in remaining as exclusive as possible — for years, selectivity was a major factor in outside rankings, like those from U.S. News and World Report. Their elitism, fair or not, is the product they offer. Princeton’s 5.5 percent admissions rate isn’t an unfortunate side effect of the admissions system — it’s the point.
Harvard and Princeton are both older than the United States of America, and as institutions go, they’re in far better shape. Specialness and exclusivity — including the exclusivity reinforced by legacy preferences — are at the heart of that longevity. They won’t give it up without a fight.
But I don’t want to be part of it any longer. I won’t be serving as an alumni interviewer this year or for the foreseeable future — not as long as legacy preferences remain in place. I know an Ivy League education can be life changing. It was for me. So it’s incumbent upon the masters of the college race to make every effort to eliminate unfairness in the admissions process.
Justice in college applications may be impossible, but universities can start by publicly abolishing a policy that advantages the advantaged. In doing so, perhaps they will loosen the grip that these schools have on the United States. And that might be the fairest outcome of all.
About the Author: Bryan Walsh
Journalist, author, dad. Former TIME magazine editor and foreign correspondent. Writing END TIMES, a book about existential risk and the end of the world.